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Taoiseach: Alleged data breach 'very significant threat to freedom of our press'

An alleged data breach within Independent News and Media represents a very significant threat to freedom of the press in Ireland, the Taoiseach has warned.

Leo Varadkar said the Government would be considering legislation to enshrine protection for journalistic sources in the light of the claims surrounding INM.

The Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) in Ireland has launched a High Court bid to have inspectors appointed to probe governance arrangements at the media group, which owns titles including the Irish Independent and Belfast Telegraph. INM is opposing the application to have inspectors appointed.

If the probe is sanctioned by the court one of a series of issues it will investigate is the circumstances around an alleged data breach in 2014 which saw the information of a number of INM employees, including high profile journalists, accessed by external companies.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

The incident, which has led to concerns the journalists' sources could have been compromised, was discussed on the floor of the Dáil on Tuesday.

Mr Varadkar was pressed by Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin to introduce laws to protect sources.

Mr Martin referenced a number of unactioned official reports that had previously called for more robust legislation to preserve press freedom.

The Taoiseach responded: "I think given recent revelations yes we are going to have to give consideration to legislation in this area to protect sources.

[quote]Perhaps time has certainly come for government to dust down those reports and give consideration to legislation in this area.[/quote]

"Having an independent news and media is the cornerstone of our democracy, it is after all the Fourth Estate and I believe journalists must be free to pursue stories that they want to pursue, their sources should be protected, free from any unjust interference external or internal.

"We need the plurality of voices in the media, we need to ensure those voices are not drowned out or silenced and we also need diversity in ownership."

Mr Varadkar commended how the media had reported the story of the unfolding events, singling out the work of INM journalists.

He added: "Reports of the data breaches represent a very significant threat to the freedom of our press, however, I think the way the media has responded to this threat to date should reassure us that our press will not be silenced."

On Monday the High Court heard that businessman and major INM shareholder Denis O'Brien is accusing the ODCE of leaking details of its application to have inspectors appointed.

Denis O'Brien.

Mr O'Brien wrote to its director Ian Drennan saying the alleged leaks had damaged his reputation, the court was told. The ODCE denied the claim.

Mr Martin told the Dail there was no evidence that the ODCE had been responsible for leaking details of its affidavit in the INM case.

"There has been no evidence at all to date transparently that they leaked anything and I don't think any agent of the state should really have to work under that sort of intimidatory cloud hanging over them," he said.

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald expressed concern that attempts were being made to "silence" the ODCE and called on Mr Varadkar to take steps to beef-up its resources.